Jessye Norman Rejected These Recordings. Should They Be Released?

The maestro was in a foul mood. And the singer was unhappy. The Berlin Wall had fallen almost a decade earlier, but Leipzig, in the former East Germany, still left something to be desired when it came to an opera star’s material needs.

The conductor Kurt Masur and the soprano Jessye Norman — whose album collaboration on Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” was already a classic — had joined the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra to start recording Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” But things had quickly soured.

“She and Masur quarreled,” recalled Costa Pilavachi, then an executive at Philips Classics, the label making the recording. “It was a very, very difficult couple of weeks.”

With costs spiraling and spirits low, the label eventually abandoned its plan for a complete “Tristan” and focused on excerpts featuring Isolde, a character Norman had never put on record beyond the famous “Liebestod.” But even this curtailed effort was never released.

Until now. Those “Tristan” excerpts are perhaps the most eagerly anticipated part of “Jessye Norman: The Unreleased Masters,” coming from Decca — part of Universal Music Group, which acquired Philips years ago — on March 24.

Jessye Norman singing from “Tristan und Isolde”

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; Kurt Masur, conductor (Decca)

The collection consists of three albums recorded with different orchestras and conductors over a period of nine years. One thing they have in common: Norman, one of the most beloved singers of our time, did not approve their release before her death, at 74, in 2019.

“When she passed on, I raised with Decca: Isn’t it time to revisit these?” said Cyrus Meher-Homji, an executive at Universal in Australia. The label approached Norman’s estate, which gave its blessing.

James Norman, her brother, said in a statement to The New York Times, “There’s no way of knowing whether Jessye would ever have approved the releases per her very high standards, as the subject was not one we ever discussed.”

But, he added, they had frequently discussed her philanthropic interests, “and we see the releases as a way to help the estate to advance those interests.”

However worthy the beneficiary, though, should labels and estates sanction the release of material that artists rejected?

Sometimes, the label answers with a clear no: Maria Callas’s final studio recording, for example, was judged artistically inferior and canned. And sometimes, an unsanctioned album comes out during an artist’s lifetime. In the early 1980s, Deutsche Grammophon put out a “Tristan” against the wishes of the notoriously recording-shy conductor Carlos Kleiber, leading to the severing of his relationship with the label.

After Kleiber died, his estate remained adamant that other material languishing in the vault should stay there. The family of Sergiu Celibidache, another conductor who frowned on recording, took the opposite position, allowing the release of many albums after his death.

This question is more familiar in the literary world. Most of us are thankful that Max Brod didn’t burn Franz Kafka’s unpublished works at the author’s request. But in 2006, when a volume of uncollected material by the poet Elizabeth Bishop was published, the scholar Helen Vendler wrote that Bishop would have greeted it “with a horrified ‘No.’”

Martha de Francisco, a record producer who worked with Norman (though not on the projects included in the new set), said, “We’re really all the time thinking of what is the artist’s integrity.”

But the nature of that integrity is often far from straightforward. Artists’ wishes can be ambiguous or ambivalent. And some observers believe that the value to posterity of certain material can in some cases supersede even clear wishes. As far as the criteria, though, most admit that it’s more or less “I know it when I hear it.”

For Norman, approving recordings was a painstaking and protracted process, even when the answer ended up being yes. “She was extraordinarily professional, and an extraordinarily severe critic of her own work,” said Anthony Freud, then one of her producers and now the general director of Lyric Opera of Chicago.

That would seem to give weight to her “no.” But those who spoke with her over the years about these unreleased projects suggest that she wasn’t always resolute about them, and that her reasons for not giving her approval were vague or fixable.

“She was a great artist, and she had the right to decide what the public would hear and what the public wouldn’t hear in terms of her commercial output,” Pilavachi said. “She definitely did soften: She was less militant when I spoke to her, maybe 10 years ago, for the last time. She was much more willing to discuss some of this.”

The earliest of the three projects is a collaboration with one of her champions, the conductor James Levine, drawn from live performances with the Berlin Philharmonic. The repertory includes the “Four Last Songs” — seven years after her sublime 1982 rendition with Masur — and, from 1992, Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder.”

“She was thrilled with the ‘Wesendoncks,’” Pilavachi said. “But she wasn’t happy with one note in one song in the ‘Four Last Songs.’ She wanted us to redo that with Levine and the Berlin Philharmonic, and it just never happened. I had extensive conversations with her throughout the ’90s about it.”

There was talk of using the Masur recording to patch the note she indicated. (While memories of her complaint are now blurry, it might have been in the first song, “Frühling,” though nothing in any of the four with Levine stands out as blatantly off.) But the original tapes of the older album turned out to have been recycled. The label couldn’t see its way to releasing the Wagner songs alone, so the whole project stayed in storage.

These “Four Last Songs” are sleeker than the luscious version she set down with Masur, while Norman’s voice, even if it had lost some easy opulence, was still majestic and flexible. The “Wesendoncks,” which she had already recorded twice, are excellent: brooding, urgent and lush, the orchestra glistening.

Norman came up with the idea for the next project, which brought together three queenly characters: Haydn’s “Scena di Berenice,” Berlioz’s “La Mort de Cléopâtre” and Britten’s “Phaedra,” all recorded with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in February 1994.

Pilavachi said Norman had vague misgivings about the Berlioz; Meher-Homji said her complaint in that work was less about her performance than the sound.

“By the late 2000s, she approved some of the material,” Meher-Homji said. “She approved the Britten, and she approved the Haydn, but she didn’t like the mix on the Berlioz. And I could understand why. The sound was really hollow; she wanted it tightened up. The orchestra sounded like it was playing in a bathtub.”

The mix was adjusted for the new release, and sounds properly balanced, with the Bostonians glittering. Her singing in the Berlioz is slightly more pressed and less plush than it had been with Daniel Barenboim a decade earlier, but she is still fully in command. The Haydn is magisterial but tender; the Britten, blistering and articulate.

There is a case to be made that Norman’s objections to these two recordings were minor, and that the performances are worthy of standing alongside her prime work. But that still leaves the “Tristan” — which poses the thorniest questions.

In a way, it is the most precious of the set, setting down a role that Norman never sang in full, one for which her capacious but thrusting voice was, in theory, beautifully suited. Its afterlife has also been the messiest of the three albums: The documentation related to the recording is scant and faded, as are the memories of those who worked on it.

The similarity between the surnames of Kurt Masur and the tenor Thomas Moser initially caused confusion about who had sung Tristan. More bizarre, when Decca announced the new set last fall, it led with the blazing news that through overdubbing Norman had recorded both Isolde and the supporting role of Brangäne. It took two and a half months for the label to correct itself: Brangäne was actually the mezzo-soprano Hanna Schwarz.

Norman, left, performing with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.Credit…Lutz Kleinhans

Meher-Homji said that at some point after the sessions had ended in April 1998, Cord Garben, the recording’s producer, flew to England to play the edit for Norman. “She listened and said nothing,” Meher-Homji said. “There were plans to continue, and she decided she didn’t want to.”

Pilavachi believes the troubled recording process had irretrievably colored her view of it. “She didn’t have any objections to her own singing,” he said. “I think she didn’t want to listen to all the tapes, having had such a lousy experience in Leipzig. I don’t think she had ever listened to it properly so that she could say yes or no.”

Dominic Fyfe, Decca’s label director, said: “Obviously this was done quite late in her career. We’re perfectly well aware there may be people who react and say this should not have been released. There may be some controversy around it. But I think on balance, collectively, we all felt that the strengths of the recording outweigh many of the weaknesses.”

It’s true: There are strengths and weaknesses to the “Tristan” excerpts. Norman’s voice is richly vehement and full of mystery. Her sensibility is lively, even if Masur’s conducting tends to be limp. Her diction is pungent; the tone has her familiar echoey depth — far plummier than Schwarz’s Brangäne — if fewer sumptuous colors. Some longer phrases are heavy lifting; the high notes are not all comfortable; and some of the intonation wavers in softer passages of Isolde’s Narrative and Curse. The album gives great pleasure, but, more than the other two, one can understand Norman doubting it.

When Pilavachi would see her in New York, he would ask her about these projects. “She became less negative about them as time went on,” he said. “But when I went back to London and I would follow up, I wouldn’t hear back. Or I’d send her the masters again, but I don’t know if she ever listened to them. With time she lost interest in them.”

The liner notes for the new set thoroughly describe the equivocal position the recordings hold in Norman’s body of work. “It’s important that people appreciate that she had misgivings,” Fyfe said.

But that context will not be available on streaming platforms. There, these albums will appear as indistinguishable from music that Norman did approve.

“In a digital world,” Fyfe said, “it’s slightly out of our hands.”

James Norman said in his statement, “We did agonize some about approving the release of something about which Jessye had some concerns.” But whatever the ethical quandaries, it is certainly the legal right of Norman’s estate and her label to approve the release of this new set. Now it is up to listeners — and to history — to judge.

“Common sense is right to prevail,” said Freud, her onetime producer. “I’m not trying to second guess why an artist might have a problem with a recording. But there are clearly recordings that are of a quality that deserves to be heard, and there are other recordings that aren’t. I suppose logically, to me, the answer needs to lie in the quality of the result somehow. Is it good?”

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